New York Times
Friday 2 May 2003
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration and leading Senate Republicans sought today to give the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon far-reaching new powers to demand personal and financial records on people in the United States as part of foreign intelligence and terrorism operations, officials said.
The proposal, which was beaten back, would have given the C.I.A. and the military the authority to issue administrative subpoenas — known as "national security letters" — requiring Internet providers, credit card companies, libraries and a range of other organizations to produce materials like phone records, bank transactions and e-mail logs. That authority now rests largely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the subpoenas do not require court approval.
The surprise proposal was tucked into a broader intelligence authorization bill now pending before Congress. It set off fierce debate today in a closed-door meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee, officials said. Democrats on the panel said they were stunned by the proposal because it appeared to expand significantly the role of the C.I.A. and the Pentagon in conducting domestic operations, despite a long history of tight restrictions, officials said.
After raising objections, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and other Democrats succeeded in getting the provision pulled from the authorization bill, at least temporarily, Congressional officials said.
In a closed vote, the committee passed the bill unanimously without the proposal. But Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who is chairman of the intelligence committee, indicated to panel members that he wanted to hold further hearings on the idea, officials said.
There was some disagreement over exactly how the provision originated. Several Senate aides active in the debate said that Senator Roberts had included it in the authorization bill. But a senior Congressional official said the Bush administration had initiated the proposal and that Senator Roberts had not objected.
A C.I.A. official said the provision had come from the Bush administration, after the White House's Office of Management and Budget signed off on it.
The official said that Congressional leaders had asked the Bush administration whether there were any additional powers needed to help combat terrorism. The administration responded with the proposal to give the C.I.A. and military the power to use the national security letters, the official said. Another Congressional official said the move came at the urging of the C.I.A. The White House had no comment last night.
Because the F.B.I. now has primary responsibility for domestic intelligence operations, the C.I.A. and the military must currently go to the F.B.I. to request that it issue a national security letter to get access to financial and electronic records.
The Bush administration believes that giving the C.I.A. and the military direct authority to demand the records would cut down on the lag time in the process and give those organizations more flexibility to combat terrorism, according to the senior Congressional official.
Administration officials played down the significance of the proposal, maintaining that it would not give the C.I.A. or the military access to any information that they cannot already get through the F.B.I.
But Democrats and civil liberties advocates said they were alarmed by the idea that the C.I.A. and the military could begin prying into Americans' personal and financial records.
They said that while the F.B.I. was subject to guidelines controlling what agents are allowed to do in the course of an investigation, the C.I.A. and the military appeared to have much freer reign. The F.B.I. also faces additional scrutiny if it tries to use such records in court, but officials said the proposal could give the C.I.A. and the military the power to gather such material without ever being subject to judicial oversight.
Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the proposal "dangerous and un-American."
Mr. Edgar said that "even in the most frigid periods of the Cold War, we never gave the C.I.A. such sweeping and secret policing powers over American citizens."
A Congressional Democratic aide said the measure appeared to go well beyond even hotly debated antiterrorism measures that the Justice Department has been considering in past months. "This is a very odd and very far-reaching idea that came out of nowhere," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It raises a whole series of questions about what the C.I.A.'s mission has really become."
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the C.I.A. and the military have assumed greater authority overseas over what were once law enforcement terrorism investigations, and the traditional lines between domestic and overseas operations have become increasingly blurred. A new terrorism center, led by the C.I.A., started operation today in an effort to better coordinate the activities of different federal agencies. Civil liberties groups said they were worried it would give the C.I.A. authority to conduct domestic operations.
The proposal to allow the C.I.A. and the Pentagon authority to demand domestic records comes at a time when both Democrats and Republicans have voiced growing concerns about the government's expanded powers to fight terrorism.
New figures released today also showed that the Justice Department is relying with increasing frequency on secret warrants that allow the officials to go to a secret court to get approval for surveillance and bugging warrants in terrorism and espionage investigations without notifying the target.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said in an annual report that the Justice Department used secret warrants a record 1,228 times last year, — an increase of more than 30 percent over the year before. The court that governs the warrants did not turn down any of the Justice Department's applications, officials said.
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